At a debate last week between the four candidates for the state's open 77th Assembly District seat, Democratic candidate Brett Hulsey took some heat for being... a Democrat.
It didn't come from either Republican David Redick or Constitution Party candidate Dave Olson, who seemed out of touch with the district's sensibilities. The 77th is too liberal to elect anybody who calls for privatizing the UW, outlawing abortion or eliminating the Federal Reserve - ideas that the conservatives variously pushed.
Rather, it was the message from Green Party candidate Ben Manski. "He's said repeatedly that 'I'm a Democrat,' as if that's supposed to be enough for all of you," Manski told the crowd.
Hulsey insists his message is actually broader than that. "To me, the key contrast is I have the legislative experience," he says. "Other people are great at organizing protests, but I'm great at making progress."
The race is to replace Spencer Black, an environmental crusader who has served for 26 years and decided not to seek reelection. The district includes part of downtown Madison and much of the city's west side, including the UW campus, as well as Shorewood Hills and part of Middleton. It is largely affluent and liberal.
"There are Republicans out there, but it's pretty few and far between," says Hulsey.
Hulsey, a 12-year veteran on the Dane County Board, was the first to declare his candidacy when Black announced his retirement last spring. His early start - and hard work campaigning - helped him defeat four others in the Sept. 14 Democratic primary, with 44% of the vote.
Hulsey's campaign last week released poll results claiming to have about 63% support to Manski's 13%. Manski says his own poll, done Monday evening, shows him in the "thick of it," with Manski garnering 29% to Hulsey's 46%, with 25% undecided.
And Manski says the average respondent was 58, meaning most young voters, where he expects to do best, were not counted. "If I get 60% of the student youth vote, then I win," he says. "I'd say at this point it's neck and neck."
Manski grew up in the 77th District (and recently moved back to it in order to run for office). He's been politically active since before he could vote, helping to organize a student walkout at West High in 1991 to protest student harassment by police (see "The Kids Are All Right," 8/23/1991).
A 2005 UW Law school graduate, Manski is now a public interest lawyer and executive director of the Liberty Tree Foundation, a progressive democracy group. He's also been active with the Green Party and says he's worked with many local legislators to help draft legislation.
Manski recently worked with Black on Assembly Bill 203, which would require the governor to review and approve any deployment of the Wisconsin National Guard, to prevent "unlawful deployments." Manski says his involvement on the bill prompted him to run for the seat.
"It became clear to me that there was a likelihood that the 77th District would be represented by someone who not only wouldn't sponsor bills like this but would not even vote for them," Manski says. "People look to the west side of Madison for leadership. This was a race I had to enter."
The two candidates push many of the same issues, including championing education and protecting the environment.
Manski is more reform-minded, eager to challenge the party machinery. He supports a voter bill of rights, similar to those proposed nationally, to allow preferential voting. It would give voters the ability to rank candidates and provide instant runoff voting if no one wins a clear majority. He also urges tax reform to get more funding for schools, including a higher marginal tax rate on the wealthy, a corporate income tax, and more money for the Department of Revenue so it can collect unpaid taxes.
And, as a stopgap measure on educational funding, Manski supports the "Penny for Kids" proposal, which adds a 1% sales tax to help fund schools.
Meanwhile, Hulsey stresses his experience and ability to achieve practical solutions. Rather than calling for tax reform, Hulsey says the Legislature needs to deliver the funding it promised for schools and vows to fight for it. He also calls for tweaking the state school aid formula, taking into consideration the number of special needs and low-income students each district has. He adds, "I'm the only person running who has two kids in the school system."
Hulsey trumpets his business experience as an environmental consultant, which he says has enabled him to fight pollution while creating jobs. He carries around a cube of locally grown "switchgrass," which he says can be burned instead of coal for power with less pollution.
Manski and others have criticized Hulsey for lobbying on behalf of Alliant Energy to build a coal plant at Cassville. Hulsey says the plans would have allowed the plant to burn a percentage of biomass, helping to reduce Alliant's overall emissions.
In his effort to portray himself as an experienced legislator able to get things done, Hulsey claimed some endorsements that weren't his, including that of U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin. Hulsey says there "was apparently a misunderstanding between her and me." State Rep. Mark Pocan also hasn't endorsed in the race, as Hulsey claimed, but Pocan did sponsor one of Hulsey's campaign fundraisers.
Hulsey has secured a number of other key endorsements, including those of Black, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Hulsey clearly sees himself in the context of the Democratic Party, one soldier in a larger fight.
"The goal here is turning out the voters in this district for Russ Feingold, Tom Barrett, Tammy Baldwin, and of course me," Hulsey says. He blames Manski for "electing George Bush president" by supporting Green candidate Ralph Nader in 2000.
Manski has his own endorsements from key Democrats - including Ed Garvey, Peg Lautenschlager and Doug La Follette - as well as The Capital Times. He adds that being an outsider will make him a better legislator. And he's done well in the fund-raising battle, collecting $33,900 as of the latest filing, on Monday. Hulsey has raised $38,000.
"Who will open the door for people excluded from the political process?" Manski asks. "Who can be counted on to keep his word?"
Hulsey puts it differently: "I believe in putting the progress back in progressive. That means you have to make progress.... You can talk about being progressive all you want, but I'm the one who actually delivered on that."
Brett Hulsey, 51
12 years on Dane County Board, owner of Better Environmental Solutions
Ben Manski, 36